Departments

Bestsellers and Blockbusters

[Read in 2018 this essay is wildly outdated; nowadays critics are slavish in their praise of blockbusters, and corroboration and conversation – like the blogosphere – are equally dead. But the extent of the change itself gives perspective. This too shall pass.]

I think bestsellers and blockbusters should be respected, if only for being timely and workmanlike. Timely and workmanlike, as nebulous qualities go, are harder to achieve than the luminosity, importance, rawness and insight whose indices adorn blurbs and websites. To yield to the pretensions of the third derivative of an empty movement while damning the formulaic pacing of stock characters through a snap-fit plot seems to me an imbalance of mind.

The one reasonable justification for critical snobbery – fear of the institutional power behind bestsellers and blockbusters, and love of the spirit of independence – has become irrelevant. Now it is the litterateur and the artiste who are the product of a program, who move through conferences and aspire to places in the system; it is the hack who independently conceives a project, carries it out through difficulty, and is left with the task of promotion. That is not to say that the hack should be loved for being independent; only that independence is a bad criterion.

How, then, to explain the persistence of critical snobbery?

A critic, or anyone inclined to be critical, meets an unfamiliar problem in treating a bestseller or a blockbuster. Used to having to curate good things – instructing ignorance, beguiling indifference, or disarming hostility – the critic may lack the art, having gotten by without it, of gracefully adding one particular voice to a general acclaim. In this lack they may overrate themselves, take up arms as if criticism had a responsibility to those who do not seek it out, and flail against the unfamiliar force of a human tide, awkward as stylites in a subway station. And on the other side of this lack they may absurdly concede their responsibilities (say, fawning over a TV show, and just as it starts to decline.)

This distinct skill, which I will call corroboration – distinct from conversation – is a useful one. Criticism is not the only context where this empty middle leaves only the poles of hostility or servility. Corroboration makes a pair with conversation, and is more than its match. Conversation has many prerequisites; corroboration is possible wherever communication is possible. Though I doubt it can be taught – for it requires just that broadness and attention and readiness to improvise which cannot be privately exercised – it is a skill that should be expected of the educated, for it is the skill that lets you talk to people as such, and saves the mind from coming to despise the human race in growing to serve it.

True, corroboration approaches dishonesty. There is an urge to corroborate that can induce oversimplification and overconfidence; that, when you have something to contribute – when you are aware of something unknown to your interlocutor’s project or observation, yet relevant to it – that compels you to speak. But common discretion will save you: when you open your mouth and say something stupid, the mistake is not being stupid – to be stupid is no more of a mistake than to be young; the mistake is to open your mouth.

Our blogosphere is distinct from and better than its Internet predecessors – especially Usenet – in being founded on this urge. Popular bloggers, in this way, can divide the labor of an essayist, beginning in the Addisonian manner with an incident that got them thinking, but leaving the work of supplying likenesses and drawing conclusions from it to their commenters.

Corroboration, and not conversation, is the mode of discussion in our web; almost as if the possibilities of conversation had been exhausted in the mile-deep threads of the last web, flammable and threatening with their flames and trolls, and we now wish to settle into a calmer process, not letting ideas contend directly, but developing them in their separate camps and letting them compete upon the shelves of a marketplace of ideas.

These names are fluid: what I call corroboration and conversation as modes of discussion might be called discussion and argument as modes of conversation or contradiction and development as modes of argument. All these terms are too basic to be used without equivocation. But the two must be distinguished somehow, because confusing them is deadly. To want one and get the other is as bad (among other basic equivocalitions) as wanting love and getting comfort, as wanting a friend and getting a lover.

Be capable of both; know the season of each. If you corroborate when you should converse or be silent, you will take a side without meaning to. In life you may be a friend to two enemies; in writing you cannot be. If you converse when you should corroborate or be silent, you betray yourself. You cannot, particularly, attack the object of a pleasure without attacking the pleasure itself. Attack the institution of bestsellers and blockbusters and you attack the pleasure that is in stories; and you are not the stronger.

Soccer

The subject calls for precision. I will follow the American usage of “football” for armored rugby and “soccer” for association football. I don’t care about either one. My interest is in the problem of soccer. By the consensus of the vast majority of human beings, even in the English-speaking world, soccer is the best team sport to watch. Yet Americans do not even reject it; we do not notice it at all – which seems to the rest of the world a fundamental mystery.

But the answer is simple. In the sports that Americans care about the difference between spectators and players is a difference of degree. The spectators of football, basketball, or baseball are capable, or have been capable, of playing the game; the players differ from them only by dedication and hypertrophy. Most of the pleasure is the sense of vicarious participation.

Spectators at a soccer game are as remote from what they watch as spectators at a horse race or a cockfight. Soccer begins in the suppression of instinct; it is an invented and unnatural discipline. In technique soccer is closer to a performance art than to a sport. That is not an insult; art hurts, performers must be tough. But learning to play soccer must begin very young, when habit is ductile and instincts have yet to calcify. To Americans, this remoteness simply excludes soccer from the definition of a sport.

Americans expect and are afforded the sense of vicarious participation everywhere in public life, even at the cost of concealing definite but remote offices and vocations with the vaguer but more sympathetic individualities of the people who hold them. Consider our native music, where the perceptibly individual singer (especially songwriter), whatever the voice they are blessed or cursed with, eclipses any number of virtuoso instrumentalists, and where even the homuncular pop singer must observe the formality of protesting an artistic identity.

The rest of the world finds it easiest and seemliest to leave each sphere of public life to the kind of personality fit for it. In that respect parliamentary democracy is not unlike soccer, where politicians are not expected to be like people – not better or worse than people, simply different, political all the way through; cells in the political organism of the party, which misleadingly shares a name with what is not at all its American equivalent.

We get more second-rate singer-songwriters than first-rate symphonies; we vote down vague individualities of proved competence for clear individualities with vague credentials and vaguer positions; we watch the silly game of football. But we have this: soccer’s enthusiast is the rioter; football’s enthusiast is the armchair quarterback, which is one of the world’s noblest types. Democracy can work only because of them – the ones who take the time and make the effort to work out what I would do.

Comparing Arts 3/3

Comparison creates art; comparison destroys art. What can be done with this double conclusion? Does it make art futile?

Certainly all art is failed art, because all art presupposes that transformation can achieve transubstantiation. Cotton becomes canvas, oil and pigment become paint. Wood and resin come in from the rain to become soundboard; horsehair that lately switched flies becomes bow. A dip in the palette, a flick of the wrist, makes a shape; a touch of rosin, a gesture of the arm, makes a note. Shapes make pictures; notes make music.

What happens next is the same for all arts. They find their way to the same place, to pattern and proportion; what the artist does floats over the matter of the work as ideas float over words. Those who say they love art and despise words deceive themselves: if words are to be despised, so is art; if art is to be respected, so are words. For that sensuous element constitutes art not because it is ever special – they all enter through the senses as pale nerve information, and the brain dyes them in feeling – but because it is the antagonist of art. The sweetness of art is the bittersweetness of a fight entered in the certainty of defeat.

This failure is common and universal: it is the world’s failure and mankind’s, who are likewise the transformation of organic chemistry and chemo-electrical feedback and (unless God help) are likewise, for all that we are perfected, never independent of our matter. And matter has no decorum. What we value most is inflection and recombination of what we value least. What paints and sings, what loves and bears well, what stands for and roars out, is what chews and squats, what sweats and stinks – what dies.

To define arts by comparison, as they must be defined, admits that arts can be defined; and whatever can be defined shares the futility that is the lexicographer’s dilemma: words find the words that define them by arcs that are segments of circles. Definition chases itself forever. For many, to be an artist presupposes a contempt for words as compromised over against art as pure, veiling what art penetrates. Life itself, for them, only confuses and conceals where art sees and enters. But this is wrong. There are no exceptions for art. Nothing resolves the mystery. Art appears transcendent because each form makes its own world; but set these worlds against each other and the familiar circle reappears, a great circle described by a skittering orbit of a smooth, sealed mystery.

Comparing Arts 2/3

Definitions are dangerous. A perfect definition is an obituary. Even an imperfect definition may be restrictive – an obituary in progress, like a resumé. To define art as what is compared to art is a comprehensive definition; but it would be lethal even if it were not comprehensive. Pater was right in this: art cannot survive the possibility of mutual comparison. There are two reasons.

1. The possibility of comparison confuses the hierarchy of arts and art’s place in the hierarchy of activities. It was possible to maintain a distinction of high and low arts only while the conditions of technology denied the low arts the permanence and portability necessary to present them critically as objects of comparison. Criticism is still catching up with what technology did in the 20th century – the fixation of the ephemeral in photos, records, and movies – and meanwhile technology has done much more. Very little that human beings do cannot now be made permanent, portable, and abstract; anything permanent, portable, and abstract can be compared to an art; and thus anything can be an art.

But isn’t that a good thing; isn’t that progress? Pater himself wanted to extend artistic deliberation to every aspect of life, wanted to “burn with a hard, gemlike flame.” He called that “success in life”; so why not bless technology for giving us all success?

But Pater’s flame is hard – it resists – and it is gemlike – it must be cut and shaped. Technology makes us burn with a soft, plastic flame. To live artistically is a commitment; like any commitment, it is defined by what it forswears: vulgarity, compromise, deference, and waste. It is not something you can receive as a gift, not something you can buy. A consumer is not an artist.

Unsleeping technology making unrelieved art will destroy art, but not by cheapening and over-familiarizing it; nor by flattening life by raising it all to artistic elevation. Art is a faculty, not an activity. What is done artistically is done by the same means, and with the same technique, as what is done mechanically. Painters and house painters both use brushes and paint; but one is an artist and the other is not. More paint goes on walls than on canvas, but this does not endanger painting as an art. Painting employs the faculty and the activity; house painting employs only the activity.

Instead, the ubiquity and cheapness of art destroys art because the comparisons that define art lose their force when an infinity of potential comparisons promises the certainty of a counterexample. Comparisons become first provisional, then unstable, then uncertain; and art, borderless, falls apart.

2. The possibility of comparing arts confuses quality in arts. This is not a new problem; it has nothing to do with technology.

A great poem “paints a picture”; a great picture “has poetry.” A great piece of music “builds in air”; a great building “is frozen music.” Great novels “have a theme;” great essays “tell a story.” And so forth.

Such reactions are so familiar that their destructiveness is hidden. But they do indeed destroy what they praise. They destroy great work because they link genius in one art to mediocrity in another. They imply that the greatest success of a poem to suggest to the reader of sensibility and cultivation what a journeyman painter can show to a child. That a picture succeeds in mere verse. That music succeeds in mere enclosure. The architecture succeeds in a ditty. That a novel succeeds in an epigram. That an essay succeeds in an anecdote.

Of course, if the perceiver is an artist in that other medium, the reaction may itself be a paraphrase of artistic value, and we get Pictures at an Exhibition. But that is rare enough to be sublime when it happens. The rest of the time, the comparisons that result from success are so many ways to negate and contain it: to resize it for criticism; to evade some command in it to change; to suppress your envy of its maker, or your despair, in looking on it, for your own efforts.

This could be what Pater really meant: that comparison of single works is not a way to explain them, but to escape them.

Comparing Arts 1/3

Walter Pater, in The Renaissance of 1873, on “The School of Giorgione”:

It is the mistake of much popular criticism to regard poetry, music, and painting – all the various products of art – as but translations into different languages of one and the same fixed quantity of imaginative thought, supplemented by certain technical qualities of colour, in painting; of sound, in music; of rhythmical words, in poetry. In this way, the sensuous element in art, and with it almost everything in art that is essentially artistic, is made a matter of indifference; and a clear apprehension of the opposite principle – that the sensuous material of each art brings with it a special phase or quality of beauty, untranslatable into the forms of any other, an order of impressions distinct in kind – is the beginning of all true aesthetic criticism.

When I first read this, it shocked me. This idea that each art-form is unique and incomparable is so far from obvious, that to accept it would negate art.

Pater himself was either not audacious enough to pursue the idea, or wrote carelessly and meant something else. Both excuses are implausible; but he must be excused, since this is the same essay that delivers the infamous sentence All arts aspire to the condition of music – which must have seemed profound, before Schoenberg undertook to reinvent music on the model of painting.

Aristotle relied on painting to inform drama, both in extent (not too short, like a painting of a flea, nor too long, like a life-size painting of a monster a mile long) and to supply its content – representation or mimesis – which he justified by the pleasure of any accurate painting, even of something unpleasant. Ut pictura poesis; the Renaissance poet’s commonplace that painting is dumb poetry, and Leonardo’s unhelpful refutation, poetry is blind painting; Qianlong’s exaltation of painting as the model of decoration; Whistler’s politely overlooked titles, his studies and compositions and symphonies – but enough. More can always be found. Only note that to set a rule for an art, a critic must be able to cite the material conditions of another art; and to break a rule for an art, an artist must be able to cite the critical freedom of another.

The depth of this process of making and breaking the definitions of an art by appeal to other arts goes as far back as definitions can be documented. Which art defines which changes; but no art ever exists alone. (No people, however ancient, are without at least the triangle of music, dancing, and poetry.)

The process of definition by comparison is not only historical or theoretical. Even once definitions are set, it continues at every level of every form. It is not only the origin of art; it is the metabolism of the life of art.

The possibility of combining arts, for example, presupposes the possibility of comparing them. Such composite arts outnumber elemental arts. There are more composite arts than we can name. Music & writing & acting are one kind of drama; music & writing & acting & singing are musicals or operas; music & writing & acting & cinematography are movie; but music & writing & acting & singing & stagecraft & spectacle is as distinct from the simple name musical or opera as these are from plays; yet it goes nameless.

In retrospect, even the arts postulated as elemental are fissible into parts that can be compared: painting, for example, is draftsmanship & composition & color; music is at least rhythm & melody & tone.

As audiences, we regard those arts that require cooperation in their production as composite, and those arts that can be carried out by an individual as elemental; but the possibility of the criticism of an individual artist presumes further divisibility – this painter is a camera, all detail, no balance or flow; this player is a machine, perfect rhythm made perfectly boring.

And to do any criticism beyond ratings, we must suppose that even these pseudo-arts – pseudo because they cannot exist independently; they are seen outside the lab, like strict-sense particles, only in combination – even these arts can be compared with each other. Sometimes perfect rhythm, perfect melody, and perfect tone fail to make a perfect fit.

A combination is not a sum. It can be better than its parts. In popular music, for example, even a good song is, as a rule, the combination of a bad poem with bad music. What it would bore me to read, what it would bore me to play, I find completely satisfying to listen to, so strongly do the ingredients bind together.

But what value remains when we split a composite art? If the composite is simple enough, none; but if the composite is complex, combinations short of the whole may still be worthwhile though the elemental parts are not. A Chinese poem-painting can be appreciated in four ways – accordingly as poetry, calligraphy, and painting are recombined.

Such a relationship between whole and part is a more approachable instantiation of the relationship between whole and whole when a work of one art is translated into a work of another. There are two kinds of artistic translation: one if the creator and translator are the same person; and another if they are different people. Again, when creator and interpreter are not the same, they may be working collaboratively; or the interpreter may be independent of the creator – part of posterity, even.

When a painter says he wants to paint a poem – so many ladies of Shalott; when a musician wants to score a painting – Tedesco’s Goya – when a poet wants to give words to a piece of music – “A Toccata of Galuppi’s”; when a musician wants to fit music to words – the “Ode to Joy,” Carmina Burana; when a writer wants to fit a story to a poem – “There Will Come Soft Rains”; when a poet wants to fit a poem to a story – “Tithonus” – we are faced, if the translated work is a success, with something very difficult to criticize. Sometimes the inspiration is plainly tacked on. And the relationship is not a function – one work may be translated into a single medium several times in several distinct versions. But there is a core of comparability between those versions – silent Romeo and Juliet and a talkie – and between translations into different mediums – Romeo and Juliet as a movie and as a ballet – a core that represents the work apart from its medium. This abstracted core cannot be handled directly; but it can be inferred from the signs of its passage.

There is certainly a sense in which all of a single artist’s works resemble each other; and a resemblance between all the art forms of a certain time, place, or class. Such mere affinities are not our concern. They are too tentative and too subjective to analyze: mere family resemblance, we see when we already know the relation what we would never seen on our own. Criticism already attracts far too many long-lost cousins; as financial success attracts them during life, so artistic success draws them as it continues to grow in reputation.

What about influence? Influences are, of course, the ligaments of commercial art, which joins art forms together in a relation which is complementary, but not inseparable. The phenomenon of influence characterizes both artists themselves who seek commercial success – bands, for example, who try to dress like they sound and sound like they dress – and it characterizes the art generated by commerce – the mutual adjustment, for example, of the design necessary to produce a product suitable for advertisement on TV, and the music and direction necessary to produce a TV commercial suitable to the product. Influence differs from combination because it is unstable. The music and the fashion, the direction and the design, are always pulling one another in a way that ensures both a perpetual movement, like a mathematical pattern’s movement towards an unattainable attractor, and sudden phase-shifts when the old elements, having become too well adjusted, make room for a new element that reboot the process – shifts that approximate the succession of new generations to commercial relevance.

(We are used to thinking, in an afterthought Marxist way, that because the faddishness of commercial art serves commerce, it must therefore a consequence of commerce. But we should be past the idea that commerce can create phenomena of human behavior. It can only exploit them. The fad, the fashion, novelty and mode are a permanent possibility of art, though not one always acted out; part of the definition not always realized, like the introns of genetics that still code in birds for the scales and teeth of dinosaurs and show up sometimes as deformities.)

Taxonomy is not demonstration. To list the ways in which arts can be compared – criticism, combination, translation, influence – is not to prove that all arts are comparable. But I see no way to define art as such, as distinct from creativity generally, except that art is what can be compared to an art, being the more like an art the more easily and confidently it can be compared. This embraces everything now called, or ever called, art, as well as all extant theories of art – they being reducible to acts of comparison.

Of course, that a definition is comprehensive does not make it true. It may even be a fault, if the definition has no limits. This definition, however, does have some limits. It does not pretend that arts can be recognized by themselves; the act of comparison is necessary. In this it evades the insight into intentions required by the idea that anything is art that is meant to be art. It does not declare that everything is art, nor even that everything now considered art always has been art; it is the act of comparison, not the possibility of comparison, that makes an art an art. It also, uniquely, provides for the historical development of arts out of one another, without tabulating which art is ancestral to which: it provides for the fact of a tree, without dictating its shape.

Proofs are made of definitions, but definitions are not proofs. This is just a starting point.